By Debnil Sur
The Republican Party has hardly been known as advocates of government funding of the sciences. From sharply reducing agency funding to forbidding scientists on advising their fields of expertise, Republicans seem to constantly oppose scientific policy. The new Republican majority in the Senate therefore raises worries about America’s leadership in scientific advancement. Senator Rand Paul and Representative Lamar Smith’s recent Politico article, titled “No, the GOP Is Not at War With Science,” aimed to assuage those worries and assure citizens of the new Congress’ continued commitment to science. Unfortunately, their remarks belie a misunderstanding of scientific processes, are diametrically opposed by party leadership’s statements and voting history and threaten the future of America’s scientific leadership.
In line with previous GOP critiques, Smith and Paul structure their criticism around a laundry list of cherry-picked examples of “wasteful projects,” including studies of Mexican history and Icelandic textiles. This approach misunderstands both the research grant allocation and the process of scientific research. The National Science Foundation and National Institute of Health utilize the peer review process for all funds they give. This means that experts within the fields rate projects, decide which ones have the best potential scientific impact, and recommend funding decisions accordingly. To be sure, more funding could be going to “ebola cures,” “quantum computing,” or other projects more seemingly in the “national interest.” However, experts within fields have to develop well-researched defenses of their proposals and defend their scientific merit to other experts. All of those people are fully aware of “national interest” in funding and have decided how much grant money would be useful to put into issues like ebola versus other, less seemingly relevant pursuits.
Additionally, keep in mind that many of the most impactful scientific advancements, including penicillin and Velcro, were side effects of other scientific endeavours. The scientific enterprise carefully vets proposals to determine which projects would most benefit from funding in the short-term. People who have spent their lifetimes in review processes and research allocation are far better suited to make such decisions than Republican politicians who have publicly disavowed science in the past.
Unfortunately, it appears that many such figures will be taking the helm of the 114th Congress. Most notably, the appointment of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to head the committee overseeing NASA and other science activities has many environmental groups worried about funding for climate science efforts. Cruz, a skeptic of anthropogenic climate change, has stated that he wishes to refocus NASA efforts on space exploration rather than environmental monitoring. However, doing so would inhibit more than just our ability to track climate change; these services are indispensable in tracking ozone loss, air pollution, biodiversity loss and other environmental changes that threaten the planet’s future. Rather than space exploration, government policy adapting to these planetary changes seems far more within the “national interest” that Smith and Paul cite.
Moreover, their past records on allocation committees also betray their misperception of America’s national interests. During the height of ebola, Paul opposed funding for highly effective contraception methods. On the other hand, near the end of 2014, Smith focused on cutting a tiny portion of the NSF budget, presumably to make way for bloated military expenditures like those for the F-35, which he has repeatedly advocated. Generally, it doesn’t seem like either Smith or Paul views the concept of science as one that the nation should care about.
Science and policy have had a tumultuous relationship in America’s history, and the Republican Congress appears set to continue that legacy. Unfortunately, the most useful scientific experiments don’t always align with the national prerogatives. Science’s greatest boons come from funding the most promising projects and letting scientists work. The challenges facing America today increasingly come from different realms, and scientific leadership and diplomacy will play an increasing role in moderating those. Military technology is evolving, but climate cycles, biodiversity loss and resource shortages are among the challenges that strong scientific policy could especially fix. We should let scientists, not politicians, make determinations on the programs that are suitable for that end. That way, we’ll make sure that funding avoids pet projects and truly has scientific utility.
Contact Debnil Sur at debnil ‘at’ stanford.edu.